Once Wernher von Braun spearheaded the American rocket program after World War II in Huntsville, Alabama, the sleepy southern town theretofore known as the “Watercress Capital of the World” was endowed with a modern calling and a vast new source of wealth. In 1975, the Huntsville Museum of Art was born along with the Von Braun Civic Center. From pictures, the very fancy museum galleries might as well have been those of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I first became aware of Huntsville at the age of 19, when I was house painting for John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. We’d met at Elaine’s. I needed work, and John had rented a tiny, run-down Stanford White town house on 77th off Madison—the one with a back-service passage into the Carlyle often used to advantage by Jack Kennedy. There, in 1974, preparations were well underway for the ill-fated Broadway musical Man on the Moon. (George Lucas had been solicited as a producer for the show by John’s daughter, Mackenzie Phillips, an actress in Lucas’s American Graffiti. Lucas ended up passing, and Andy Warhol wound up producing the musical. But it’s been often presumed that somewhere in all this was the genesis of Star Wars. John thought so, anyway.) The musical would recount von Braun’s post–W.W. II work in Huntsville that led to the development of the Saturn V rocket, instrumental in achieving Kennedy’s goal of sending men to the moon.
I first became aware of Huntsville, Alabama, at the age of 19, when I was house painting for John Phillips.
Nearly 50 years later, the Huntsville Museum’s director, Christopher Madkour, asked whether I would loan my portraits of Gloria Vanderbilt to supplement a retrospective of her fascinatingly dark paintings.
I photographed Gloria for the first time in 1996, for Vogue. A Condé Nast messenger left all the original color chromes on the subway, never to be found again, but the black and whites were wonderful and useful, and Gloria loved them. In the years following there were more assignments to photograph Gloria for Vogue and for Town & Country, and Gloria herself hired me for portraits aplenty. So of course I said yes to the museum’s request for what would be Gloria’s first museum exhibition and first retrospective. “Gloria Vanderbilt: An Artful Life” will also be complemented by a show of my own photographs, “Jonathan Becker: Social Work,” comprising portraits of the Duchess of Alba, Eudora Welty, Venus Williams, André Leon Talley, Al Sharpton, the Prince of Wales, and so on. Both exhibitions open on October 29.
I had the idea to trek down to Huntsville in an R.V. On hearing this, the museum staff didn’t miss a beat, so very unconditionally saying that such a large terrestrial craft was not welcome in their parking lot. We’ll see. Learning to drive an R.V. now.
Jonathan Becker lives in New York City